President Reagan is looking politically very strong. From the crest of his State of the Union speech last night and his expected reelection announcement Sunday night, the slope to November's rendezvous with voters promises a quite do-able passage.
His prospects are not without hazard. The Democrats are enrolling minority voters; many women find him uncomprehending of their needs; unions and educators are readying their political firepower. The marines vulnerable to attack in Lebanon, the bitter aftertaste of superpower wrangling with the Soviets, the contradictory straddling of leftist and rightist swamps in Central America - these are among the foreign policy imbroglios the White House must negotiate. And some economists warn that Wall Street unease about interest rates this summer could weaken confidence in his leadership.
This said, we repeat that Mr. Reagan will be making his reelection decision this weekend from a position of political strength. He could, in a sense, declare victory for the main thrust of his policies and retire after one term, and no one could say he quit because he wasn't ahead.
The most critical period for the Reagan first term was back in the fall of 1982 and early in '83, when the recession and unemployment might have undermined him politically. But even then, in the depths of the recession, Americans thought eventually Reagan's program was going to work. What could have been expected - and as it has turned out - any improvement in the economy would be reflected in stronger approval of Reagan's performance.
Sure enough, public approval of the President's leadership has steadily climbed with the recovery. Many survey measures show Reagan reversing the third-year downtrend in the perception of recent presidents.
Mr. Reagan is benefiting from a comparative high in the American public's spirits. Some 56 percent of the public expects 1984 to be a good year, for themselves and the nation, according to the Roper Organization's surveys. This is the highest reading in the past dozen years, well up from its low of 34 percent in the post Vietnam-Watergate-oil embargo year of 1974.
Other political factors work in his favor. In the past four presidential elections, Republican candidates have averaged 51 percent of the popular vote, Democrats 43 percent, and third-party candidates 5 percent. The 1980 results came close to the average - Reagan 51 percent, Carter 41 percent, Anderson 7 percent. For some reason, whatever is happening at the congressional and state levels, where a Democratic advantage remains pronounced, the GOP enjoys an edge in White House balloting. Carter's 1976 win over Ford was a narrow 50 percent to 48 percent, aided by an Electoral College assist in the South. As a conservative Republican, Reagan benefits from an Electoral College bonus in the less populous Western states, which adds to his popular vote leverage.
At the moment, some surveys show Reagan ahead of Walter Mondale, the Democratic front-runner. The CBS/NY Times poll has it Reagan 48 percent, Mondale 32 percent in a hypothetical match-up. Other surveys show the race closer to even - Gallup a 45-45 tie. In 1980, national surveys tended to mask Reagan's Electoral College strength, which was evident throughout in state-by-state assessments.
The surveys showing the race close should not be dismissed, however. They should inject a note of caution.
Reagan, putting it in broad strokes, associated himself successfully with a general mood and direction that began to emerge decisively in 1978. The public hasn't agreed with him on all details. But it wanted a change in the direction of the political economy across the board. He gave them that, and a sense that the institution of the presidency could act purposefully.
We felt in 1980 that the public was not endorsing a particular program of action, that it was still largely pragmatic, that is, looking for results rather than favoring any specific economic or social philosophy. The American public remains programmatically tolerant in 1984. It would still endure wage and price controls or other liberal nostrums, as it did recession, for the promise of economic stability.
An incumbent has a lot of room to work within the positive range of this tolerance. That is why, unless his performance sours or he missteps, Mr. Reagan can look ahead to a campaign sensing the advantage.